It would be easy to assume a lot about The Tent Shop, a new online store run by the Vancouver-based artist Jacob Gleeson — namely, that it might be in the business of selling tents. Or, with its deadpan write-ups and roster of vintage ephemera, amateur art, and back-catalog pieces by artist friends, that the shop might be some Canadian version of Partners & Spade, and Gleeson a hyper-aware collector engaging in an art-world prank, à la Claes Oldenburg’s The Store (1961). In fact, neither is quite true. The shop’s name stems from its planned incarnation in the physical world: Gleeson intends to purchase a heavy-duty canvas tent in which he can randomly host events around Vancouver. And as for Gleeson, though he did a stint at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design, he tends to view his new venture through the lens of an anthropologist more so than an artist or even a shopkeeper. “I started with the intention of showing these things together as much as wanting to sell them,” he says. “I’m drawn to the individual objects but something about putting them next to each other makes them even more interesting to me, which is why I leave things up on the site even after they’ve sold. The record of an object’s existence has as much value to me as the object itself.”
Gleeson’s interest in collecting and the nature of objects stretches all the way back to his days at art school, where he often used thrifting as a source of inspiration for his work. “I generally did photo and film stuff, but I eventually got into sculpture and installation, which led to collecting objects, which I’d then use as raw materials,” he says. So perhaps it makes sense that since graduation, nearly all of Gleeson’s projects have had a retail element; all of those amassed objects eventually had to end up somewhere. In the mid-2000s, burned out on openings and looking for something new, Gleeson ran into a friend who had purchased a building with an affordable storefront space. “It was weird, but Vancouver’s zoning laws demanded that it stay a grocery store,” remembers Gleeson. That limitation offered a sort of forced creativity, and Gleeson joined forces with his friend Gareth Moore to open St. George Marsh, a shop/gallery hybrid that included, among other things, vintage candies, a video rental, a garden, and nostalgic, stubby soda bottles, which the two sold as collector’s items. Gleeson went on to open two more collaborative retail ventures in the space.
The lease to that space has since expired, and if the rent weren’t so high elsewhere in Vancouver, Gleeson says he’d open a permanent spot in a heartbeat. But that’s why the idea for The Tent Shop was so palatable. “Online, it can be open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with no overhead other than a web fee. It’s more accessible than anything I’ve ever done.” His offerings include everything from ceramic sculptures to a black-framed, heart-shaped potato chip. “The retail element provides a familiar context to display things that other environments don’t,” Gleeson explains. “When you introduce articles that aren’t very ‘sell-able,’ it creates a kind of tension that I really enjoy: a challenge to instill value into something that wouldn’t normally be considered valuable.”
To find his stock, Gleeson scours thrift stores around Vancouver, but he also hits up his old art-school chums for older work that might be lying dormant in their studios or found objects they can donate to the cause. But he still downplays the art-world element to what he’s doing. “I don’t charge a commission,” he points out. “But even more, I think labeling something as art can sometimes cause a specific and limited interpretation, and maybe even take some fun out it.” Because at the end of the day, The Tent Shop is a hobby for Gleeson; he has a full-time job, so it ought to be something he enjoys. As such, he’s been using it as an excuse to reconnect with art-school friends with whom he lost touch, and to hone his writing chops. (A sample product description: “An old leather hockey glove with a nice color scheme. Would ideally suit a one-armed left-handed person…or someone who just likes old leather things. $20.” We were so charmed by the voice behind the shop, we gave Gleeson a selection of our favorite items and asked him to tell us the stories behind their provenance.